Is Local Food Elitist?

There have been a number of recent articles about local-food-as-culture-war–usually in newspapers the bulk of whose readership is decidedly urban.

If you read those articles, you read about the haves and have-nots–the people who can afford to dine at the latest locavore bistro or who chose to spend a large chunk of their income on good, healthy, fresh foods and those whose food culture is more of the mass-market variety.

Out here in the rural areas where I’ve been living for the vast majority of my life, the local food craze might seem like more of an urban fad than a legitimate lifestyle choice (and out here, even the phrase, “lifestyle choice” will raise some eyebrows).

While it’s true that I learned to cook creatively in a city (albeit a small one) where I had unlimited access–though limited funds–to embark on worldly restaurant excursions, my roots are in places where agriculture forms a sizable chunk of the economy.

With a background steeped in sit-down family meals and gardening as a form of both sustenance and competition (my mother and her father vied for the first full-sized bell pepper of the season), it seems to me that urbanites are really just catching on to what rural people have known all along–food from your farm or garden is fresher and tastes better.

That doesn’t strike me as a fad so much as a realization rather late in coming.

Sure, you can fancy up your arugula salad with the latest hip, imported cheese and toasted nut oils more easily in places where such amendments are easily sourced, but if you call it “rocket”–that super-early spring green that’s a tonic after the long, hard, snowed-in winter–it tastes just as good, and is a heckuva lot cheaper when you scatter a few seeds on the newly-thawed ground–or just harvest the volunteers from last year’s patch.

Often, the recipes that are celebrated in urban locavore cuisine have their roots in rural and peasant traditions (like the “nose-to-tail” craze)–they’re not new to a lot of us, they’re just new (and exciting!) to people who didn’t grow up with “delicacies” like blood sausage and head cheese, which are meant to salvage every last scrap of food from an animal’s carcass.

The necessities born out of the hardship of yesterday are today’s gourmet delights.  If there is a real food culture in America, it comes from the traditions of immigrant farmers and ranchers–the rural people.

Now that our rural communities are emptying out, perhaps we should be thankful that the urbanites are taking up the cause of preserving our rural food traditions, even if we smirk a little at their newbie naivete.

But I would also argue that if we want to preserve our rural communities, a good way to do that is to celebrate our food culture and teach our traditions to new generations.  If our own kids (having been steeped from birth in the dull-seeming traditions of their parents) aren’t interested, surely others are.

And we need to make those special foods locally available, so that tourists and passers-through and newcomers have access to the foods that make our region unique.

I was really disappointed today, after having found some really nice-looking potato sausage, that the only sauerkraut I had access to was a bag of mass-produced additive-amended stuff in the grocery store.  Wha?  After all the talk this fall of enormous cabbages and epic kraut-making adventures, I can’t find a single jar of the real deal?

If someone wants to trade fermented sauerkraut for fermented dill pickles, get hold of me.  Next year, I’m laying in my own supply, even as I work to secure the commercial kitchen and processing space to ensure no one in Big Stone County suffers intense kraut disappointment in the future.

But the real point of this discussion is to say that local food is not about the latest trend, it’s about community–and it’s most especially about rural communities and their special food traditions.

You can’t call backyard gardening a fad in a place like Beardsley, Minnesota, where almost everyone in the skosh-over-200 population has one, or has a neighbor with more than enough produce to share.  Where city-trendy hobbies like canning and preserving are an intrinsic thread in the fabric of everyday life and the cycle of the seasons.

For me, growing and sourcing local food–preparing it, preserving it, and eating it–is very much about community and making a home in a specific place.

Sure, it’s nice to dine at a fancy international bistro every once in awhile, but eating at home, and eating good food produced close to home, has always been more satisfying than the fanciest haute-cuisine-local-sustainable-organic-what-have-you meals I’ve enjoyed in metropolitan places.

Even when I end up doing all the dishes.

9 responses

  1. Pingback: Is Local Food Elitist? (via Big Stone Bounty) | Between Leaf and Sky

  2. Perhaps, because of supply and demand, farmers who sell local food in the city are able to charge more for their wares. So, city local food is more expensive and harder to find than country local food. Just a thought.

  3. Thank you for the insightful post. I returned to the farming community I was raised in a few years ago after several years of absence only to find many of the locals purchasing their produce from Walmart. We do have a farmer’s market now, but the local diner with the best home-made cinnamon rolls in the county is long-gone. I make it a point to visit the last remaining privately-owned hardware store rather than Menards if I can get what I need there, but I’m not sure it will keep them in business. Growing my own food and encouraging others to do so or buy from local growers helps keep me from becoming discouraged. I believe that if the local food trend creates a renewed awareness of the quality of local food and the necessity of nurturing local economies, it will serve its purpose in the long run–perhaps before the urbanites realize that growing their own is the only option. I have a fine crock of sauerkraut in the basement if you’re up for the drive ;-) Thanks for the post.

    • Living in what’s been called a “rural food desert” myself (and local food development being my job), I think it’s crucial to hold up the mirror to this culture and point out that local food isn’t just a city trend (which can then easily be dismissed/scoffed at/called a fad), it’s a rural tradition.

      The skills are here, but they are dying out as our population ages and thins out. Healthy, fresh food is accessible–but its accessibility depends on having the skills/land to grow and prepare it. Just as the Milan School focuses on traditional Scandinavian arts and crafts and has been remarkably successful teaching that part of the region’s culture, this area is rich in traditional foodways that could be capitalized upon for the good of the local economy and to increase the accessibility to and use of these traditional foods.

      So, it’s not my intention to tear down urbanites’ “foodie” inclinations–and I don’t believe that the urban local food craze is, in fact, a “fad.” As I mentioned in my post, it’s more of a realization that local food is fresher and better-tasting. But I’ve heard a lot of rural people (who, by-and-large produce that food) scoff at local food when they (IMHO) ought to be embracing it as a way to revive their economies, their communities, their culture.

  4. Thank you for a wonderfully written article. We are at a crunch time for health of our population and for the preservation of local food culture. It is very exciting to me to see the interest and devotion of our local people! Countryside Public Health is part of “health improvement through increasing access to fresh and local foods” plan. We have purchased signage for the Farmer’s market being held in Ortonville and plan to do some advertising in spring. Also, a Spring Forum is being planned for March 1 at Milan school for local producers and retailers (grocer, restaurant, institutional kitchens and schools). To help facilitate the local food network. I would be very interested in hearing any ideas or suggestions you may have that would intice new and current producers. We have supported the Farm to School initiative in 6 schools in the CPHS 5-county area (including CGB) with the remaining time in our grant we would like to see progress made in policies, systems and environmental changes that are sustainable after our funding goes away in June. I welcome any input!

  5. I just found your blog and am enjoying it. As someone who grew up in and continues to spend much time visiting family in small towns not far from yours (but have lived in large cities near and far for the past 12 years), I’m not sure I see the same things you’re seeing with regard to fresh and local food. Most of the small town people I know – even the ones with gardens – eat more processed junk food than I and most of my city friends do.

    I’ve always chalked it up to a couple of things. It seems like there was a point in time (50s-60s-70s?) when having the money to buy Betty Crocker mixes, Velveeta and Wonder bread was a sign of some wealth/prestige. The other factor I see is cost. When I bring cheese from a Minnesota farm that I bought at Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis to my rural family members, they look at the ~$15/lb price tag and say “oh my, who brought the expensive cheese? We’d better eat these Kraft singles and save that one for a special occasion.”

    Maybe my family’s unique, but when it comes to anything but the most basic garden veggies, they’re store bought and often store brand all the way. Local doesn’t seem to have the value or premium that the city folk like me are willing to pay. Although that may be your exact point. :)

  6. Pingback: Get On the F*ing Train People! | Green Desert Eco-Farm

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